Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Dumb and Dumber in D.C.

According to a new study published by the educational organization Sunlight Foundation, members of Congress speak at a level of diction one whole grade level below that of last year. Sunlight Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to increasing transparency and accountability of the United States Government, revealed that most members of Congress now speak at around a 10.6 grade level, decreased from a grade level of 11.5 in 2005. Just to put things in perspective, the average American speaks at around an 8th or 9th grade level.

To garner these statistics, the Sunlight Foundation employed the Flesch-Kincaid test, which determines at which grade level a person (in this case, member of Congress) is speaking. Sunlight states:
 "At its core, Flesch-Kincaid equates higher grade levels with longer words and longer sentences. It is important to understand the limitations of this metric: it tells us nothing about the clarity or correctness of a passage of text."
Therefore, this downgrade of Congressional diction could be seen as either a dumbing down of Congress or simply a more effective, succinct method of communication. Regardless of what this trend denotes, many other correlations emerge.Among Republicans, the more conservative a member of Congress is, the lower the level of his or her speech. Nevertheless, among Democrats, no such trend emerges.

So what does this all mean? Earlier this year, Obama's State of the Union Address recorded an eighth-grade level of speech for the third year in a row, well below the 10.7 average speech level of all prior 67 State of the Union addresses. Essentially, the State of the Union has now downgraded itself to the reading level of the average American.

How do you feel about this simplification of diction in Congress? And, more importantly, what do you think it reflects: a growing trend of stupidity in Congress, a growing need to connect with "Joe Six-Pack", or a streamlined method of communicating in politics? In other words, are you frustrated with the interminable, proletariarian nature of this eradication of the pedantic, or are you just angry?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

False Eyewitness Testimonies Account for More Than Half of 2,000 Exonerations

The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported on a new archive which totals 2,000 exonerated convicts in the past 23 years. According to the article/archive, the most common cause of a wrongful conviction are false testimonies/identifications (SF Chronicle Article). This reminded me of a Sixty Minutes segment from about a year ago that delved into problems with eyewitness identification. Firstly, the "fight or flight" reaction of people under stress greatly reduces their ability to remember details which would help them identify a perpetrator later, as Gary Wells, an Iowa State psychology professor explains:
Secondly, even if the criminal is not present it a line up, as was the case with Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton (in which the former mistakenly identified the latter as her rapist),often people will compromise the picture in their head somewhat in order to be able to choose someone from the line up. Once that image is altered it is nearly impossible for the victim to identify his/her actual attacker.
60 Minutes Segment
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These phenomena raise the question: is eyewitness testimony reliable? Is it reliable enough to be as large of a factor in convictions as it currently is, especially with the existence of the death penalty?

Native Americans Don't Watch Solar Eclipses

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/54/Ecl-ann.jpg/220px-Ecl-ann.jpgWhile most of us were ogling the solar eclipse today, members of several Native American tribes, including Navajo and Hualapai did not participate. These tribes regard the sun and the moon as deities and thus some see an eclipse as a bad omen or a powerful negative energy. Others simply consider it rude to gawk at nature while it is going about its business. Baje Whitethorne Sr., a member of the Navajo tribe says: "It was just the respect and honor you give to what nature does...The sun is reborn, and in acknowledging what nature does, you take a minute to acknowledge yourself." Do you think this Native American tradition is admirable, or is it a shame that tribe-members miss out on a rare event because of archaic beliefs?

Net Immigration From Mexico Stops

Ironically, while border states pass tougher anti-illegal immigration laws such as the 2010 Arizona law which requires citizens to carry proof of their legality, immigration from Latin America, especially Mexico, is slowing dramatically. According to a recent Pew report, net migration from Mexico is now zero at most, and has been decreasing since 2005 or 2006. There is still debate over whether this data renders increased attention to immigration policy useless. Some, like Princeton University sociologist Margaret Tienda rue the fact that data does not seem to be as large a factor in policy-making as politics while others claim that the fall in immigration is temporary development in response to the temporary economic recession but immigration will pick up again as soon as more jobs are available. Should we be worrying about our immigration policy now, considering that immigration from the previously largest supplier of immigrants is at a standstill or should we be worrying that the US has lost its appeal?
 NPR article

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cyborgs May One Day Roam the Earth

The people involved in the clinical trial of "BrainGate", which is working on connecting electrical signals in the brain to "external devices", released this video of a stroke victim using the neural interface system to manipulate a robotic arm. Although it will undoubtedly be many years before this technology is widely available (due both to expensiveness and to controversy that will probably surround this advancement as it has stem cell research or cloning), I think it is super cool that technology has come so far and can offer people a second chance at life.

Tariff on Chinese Solar Panels: Mistake?

New York Times article
As of Thursday, the Commerce Department intends to impose a minimum 30% tariff on solar panels from China. The tariff is an attempt to prevent China from gaining a monopoly over solar panel production, but in my opinion it is a wasted effort. The US government is fighting an uphill battle trying to protect the manufacturing industry given the cheapness of production overseas and the effectiveness of China's very industry-specific Five-Year Plans (the latest of which has a big focus on solar energy.) The tax may hurt China but it also damages US economic interests because raising the price of solar panels will lead to less business for solar panel installers (a service job which is more stable than manufacturing since it can never be outsourced overseas) and for raw material suppliers (American chemical companies supply most of the main ingredient in solar panels to China.) It seems that the government is choosing to weaken non-outsource-able industries in favor attempting to preserve a proportionately shrinking one. It seems to me that any gains that could be made from this tariff would be small and not worth driving up the price of being green.

Perhaps I am missing some large argument in support of the tariff  or perhaps the manufacturing sector is far more important than I realize. What do you guys think?

Indiana v Bei Bei Shuai : Is Suicide While Pregnant Murder?

 Indiana v Bei Bei Shuai : Is Suicide While Pregnant Murder?

An Indiana woman is facing trial for the murder of her 3-day old baby, resulting from the ingestion of rat poison in an attempt to take her own life a few days earlier. The charge against the woman is due to Indiana's version of a law which creates a double charge against those who commit violence against a pregnant woman, to account for harm to the fetus. Most versions of the law (existing in 36 states and at the federal level, under the Unborn Victims of Violence Act of 2004) were passed after the Laci Peterson case (2002) in order to offer extra protection to pregnant women. Because of its origins, many people argue that the law's application against Bei Bei Shuai violates its intent. If Shuai is convicted, groups such as Reproductive Health Reality Check fear it could be applied to punish any pregnant woman who engages in unhealthy or risky behavior in any form. 
Excerpt from  ACLU amicus curiae brief:  
 "according to the ways the laws are being applied here, the state of Indiana believes that any pregnant woman who smokes or lives with a smoker, who works long hours on her feet, who is overweight, who doesn't exercise, or who fails to get regular prenatal care, is a felon. And the list of ways these laws could be construed to unconstitutionally prosecute pregnant women goes on and on."
 Is it discrimination to criminalize for pregnant women risky or self-destructive behavior that is legal for others? Does the application of Indiana's fetus protection law against a mother rather than a third-party violate its original intent? If so, does that make the law unethical? Where should prosecutors draw the line when determining if potentially harmful activity is illegal?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Déjà Vu All Over Again


Are you seeing double? You should be, as Time Magazine decided to ask the same question this year that they asked 16 years ago: can Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu make peace in the Middle East?

In my opinion, the answer is still no.

Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel, still faces the conundrum of a situation in which the status quo is actually best left alone, despite its own flaws. Any move away from the status quo, for Israel, would have two options: a one-state or a two-state solution.A one-state solution would entail removing settlements from the West Bank. A two-state solution entails annexing the West Bank, thus transforming the balance between Jews and Palestinians living under Israeli sovereignty.

An unspoken third solution, however, may be Israel's best bet: maintaining the status quo.While some say the current situation is unable to be sustained, from an Israeli perspective, it only has advantages.Noam Sheizaf of the blog +972, a publication devoted to commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, cites economic theory in order to explain Israel's policy choice.Sheizaf claims that, under the laws of rational choice theory, we all attempt to pay minimum costs to get maximum payoff. In the words of Sheizaf himself:
Let’s look at the options an Israeli policy-maker has before him: a two-state solution is likely to bring a near civil-war moment within the Jewish public, as well as considerable security risks. ...At the same time, annexing the West Bank will cause a severe international backlash, as well as major legal problems – and that’s only in the short run. It is even more risky, politically, than the two-state solution. The third option is maintaining the status quo, while trying to minimize its costs and maximize its benefits. From a rational-choice perspective, this is the optimal option.
The advantages of the status quo are numerous. First off, Israel currently enjoys relative peace, stability, and prosperity. Israel would be irrational if it chose to abandon this security for any other option. This putatively "unsustainable option" has sustained itself thus far, and will continue to do so. Furthermore, when polled, nearly all Israelis say they prefer the status quo to a two-state solution (if forced to choose between a one-state and two-state deviation from the status quo, they then prefer a two-state solution).

Perhaps Israel never actually faced having to choose between a one-state or two-state solution, as the status quo has always remained an option. And if Scheizaf is correct in his assumption that Israelis will abide by the laws of rational choice theory, Netanyahu will never make the choice to stray from the status quo. Thus, to answer Time's eternal question, no, Netanyahu will not be able to make peace. But he may be able to keep it.

Crazy Is as Crazy Does

While technically satirical, a recent Onion Article captures the dysfunction of the North Korean government and its leader, Kim Jong Un, better than many news articles. Please enjoy, and any quips about North Korea are greatly appreciated, as is actual political commentary. A highlight of the article:
"Other ideas Kim has had for proving his insanity include placing anyone shorter than himself under permanent house arrest, issuing a new national currency every 90 days, normalizing relations with South Korea, and replacing all medicines with synthetic replications of his own saliva."

A Bad Seed: Ethics in Sperm Donation

The Kretchmars of Yukon, Oklahoma, were devastated to find out that their baby boy--who was artificially inseminated nine months ago--had cystic fibrosis, a crippling disease that leads to massive scarring of the pancreas and a premature death. The Kretchmars later learned that the sperm they selected had been frozen for decades at a laboratory. Hundreds of other cases of children fathered by sperm donors have inherited genetic conditions ranging from spinal muscular atrophy to heart defects from fathers they will never meet.

Several decades ago, issues such as these were uncommon enough to slip beneath the radar. However, over a million children children are estimated to be born each year through donated sperm of eggs, making this issue very relevant to today's society. However--as evident in the case above--regulation of said donations leaves much to be desired.

While donated eggs can still pose genetic risks to whatever children arise as a result, donated sperm is the critical fear. One egg can only produce one child, whereas one donation of sperm can result in over a hundred potential children suffering from or carrying genetic defects. Thus, while donors have the same rate of genetic mutations as does the general population, the sheer magnitude of their possible progeny invalidates that argument against increased regulation in sperm banks. The Food and Drug Administration currently requires that all men who choose to donate sperm must be tested for communicable (infectious) diseases, but has no requirements for genetic diseases. Some upper-level sperm banks encourage genetic testing, but does not make it mandatory.

Nevertheless, the fertility industry is not in favor of such new, mandatory regulations. Proponents of keeping the status quo cite the inherent risks in human reproduction, claiming that even with the excessive costs of testing for genetic defects, there will still be risks in children begot by donated eggs or sperm.
However, current sperm banks have no real mechanism of record-keeping to warn donor families of any possible diseases that may emerge in their children.

So, hitchhikers, what is your stance on the current regulation of the sperm and egg donor marketplace? Remember that it is still a marketplace, and thus companies will be truly adverse to expensive, forced genetic testing. However, do you feel that the benefits of mandating genetic testing in donated eggs and sperm will outweigh the costs to the companies? Do you feel one sperm donor should have a cap on the amount of children he can foster with his sperm?

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Is Cyberspace Our Achilles Heel?

For all the fund the US spends on defense, we may be defenseless against the next attack against us claims Richard Clarke, author of Cyber War, who insists that the future of warfare is covert action using "weaponized malware," complex viruses that infect computers can steal information, cut off communication, or even destroy nuclear centrifuges. Cyber-attacks are nearly impossible to trace, but Clarke is incredibly certain that is was the US government who released Suxnet, which led to the destruction of about one thousand nuclear centrifuges in Iran, slowing the advancement of the country's nuclear program severely. If the government had achieved this objective by physically destroying the centrifuges, it would have been regarded as a declaration of war. Achieving it through a computer virus keeps it as "covert action." The problem with the use of weaponized warfare is that, although the US has a sizable arson of cyber-offence technology, we have no cyber-defense, nor much hope of finding one, according to Clarke.
"catastrophic consequences may result from using our cyber­offense without having a cyberdefense: blowback, revenge beyond our imaginings." -- Richard Clarke

Because covert action requires no notification of other branches of government like deployment of troops does, and no approval from congress like declaration of war, does the expansion of covert action via technology leave too much power in the executive branch? How could we attempt to make a clearer distinction between war and covert action?

Does the anonymity of cyber war protect the country or is that advantage canceled out by the riskiness of not having a solid defense and/or does anonymity lead to chaos á la the classic bar fight that erupts when no one is sure who punched whom?

More of Richard Clarke on Cyber War and how to avoid an attack: 

50 Years, One Graph

This handy graph by Lam Thuy Vo of Planet Money, a station on National Public Radio, details the comparison of the federal government's spending in 1962 as compared to 2011. As is evident in the graph, the United States government has been spending more and more on entitlement programs, government programs that offer benefits to individuals who meet mandatory requirements, as Medicaid barely existed in 1962.

A cursory analysis of the graph reveals the inordinate percentage of funds that the government devoted to defense spending in 1962. While this amount is mostly admissible to the Space Race, the nuclear race with the Soviets, the Vietnam War, etc., it does put our current defense budget in a healthy perspective. Nevertheless, defense remains the largest category of the federal budget.

Understandably, safety net program spending shot up in light of the recent recession and its consequent rise of unemployment, a lagging indicator of the well-being the United States economy. These programs include food stamps, housing assistance, and payments to the unemployed.

"Everything else" contains every single facet of federal spending not enumerated on the graph, such as NASA, energy, natural resources, agriculture, housing and urban development, education, science, justice, etc. While many of these governmental bodies require less funding than others, "everything else" still seems smaller than it should be (at least to keep student loans down).

What this graph does not reflect--yet is still important to note--is the fact that the growth of federal spending over the past 50 years has been more or less congruent with the growth of our economy. In 192, the United States Government spent 18 percent of its GDP, essentially $707 billion. In 2011, the United States Government spent 24 percent of its GDP, essentially $3.1 trillion.

While any drastic change to our current budget would be unlikely to pass--and cutting entitlement programs seems to be near impossible--do you see any improvements you would make to our current budget allotments? Do you think the heat the government has taken for its bloated military budget is less valid considering the defense budget in 1962? What do you think about the meteoric rise of Medicare and Medicaid?

Check here for the full story.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Failibuster: a Constitutional Question

Years of criticism of the filibuster have finally come into fruition: a nonprofit, Common Cause, sued the Senate this Monday regarding the constitutionality of filibuster rules that need mandatory routine 60-vote thresholds for any bill or nomination that generally have the support of the majority of the Senate anyway. In other words, Common Cause argues that the Constitution details the supermajority requirements for all legislative action (i.e. two-thirds vote for treaties/removal/expulsion/Constitutional amendments), thus making the 60-vote threshold is an unnecessary obstacle to passing legislation.
To critics' eyes, this lawsuit could not have come at a better time. The Senate is once again stuck in partisan gridlock, with complaints of abuse by minority Republicans of the filibuster. Both Democrats and Republicans employed the filibuster from 1981 to 2006, but 2006 to the present marks an unprecedented filibustering by the Republicans, averaging at 140 motions for cloture in the 110th and 111th Congress.

Most efforts to reform the filibuster in the past have floundered due to the fact that two-thirds of the Senate must agree to change any Senate rules. Thus, a Supreme Court decision ruling filibustering unconstitutional might be the only method by which the filibuster can truly be stricken from American politics. However, is the lawsuit valid?

Dr. Gregory Koger, a political scientist in the United States who specializes in studying filibusters (filibustology?), argues that no, the lawsuit is not valid. He believes the filibuster is constitutional for a whole host of reasons, the most notable of which I will summarize. (Interestingly enough, Koger would not even want the filibuster to be outlawed.)

  • He notes that "Each House may determine the rules of its proceedings." Congress' discretion over its procedure seems concrete in the Constitution.
  • Both the House and Senate use supermajority rules in many procedural threshold requirements to suspend rules, increase taxes, waiving the Budget Act, etc. If the cloture threshold is found to be unconstitutional, these practices will cast doubt over the validity of legislation enacted under these terms.
  • Filibustering, while infamous, is not the only manner in which Senators can obstruct a vote. Declaring filibustering unconstitutional will not change the intent of particularly stubborn Senators.
  • The Constitution does not mention a Congressional committee system, which both houses currently have in place. Said committees kill 70-90% of all bills in Congress before they even reach the floor. Koger argues, if filibustering is facing charges of unconstitutionality, why not also outlaw Congressional committees?
  • While time is not a factor in the constitution, the simple fact that the filibuster has been a part of American politics since 1789 works in its favor. Just because the filibuster--like political parties, interest groups, primaries, etc.--has not been explicitly allowed in the Constitution does not mean it is unconstitutional.
How do you feel about this lawsuit and, more specifically, the constitutionality of the filibuster? Do you even think that this lawsuit will come to court? Keep in mind that the case may be dismissed as a "political question," as the employers of the filibuster have been almost exclusively minority Republicans. Furthermore, Common Cause wins and the filibuster is exterminated from the Senate, will the cogs of the Senate suddenly become unclogged and begin to work again? Or will senators find other ways to prevent votes? 

"Changing the voting threshold would have the small benefit of removing an excuse for this dysfunction, but it would not solve the more fundamental problem that many legislators find it in their electoral interests to disagree."

Sushi: the Gay Marriage of Foods?

Is it possible that our common acceptance of gay marriage is due to the same reasons we like sushi? Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia responds to the question of how popular opinion about gay marriage could have evolved so quickly through a gastronomical metaphor. Haidt claims that sushi, a food that seems unappetizing and foreign to most American palettes, has grown more and more popular as Americans have seen other Americans eating sushi and thus habituated to the concept. Likewise, he believes that America has become accustomed to the concept of gay marriage simply by adjusting to and accepting its existence.

While Haidt's claim may belittle itself due to its blatant appeal as a sound byte, his novel rationale could explain why popular opinion of gay marriage has shifted so much toward acceptance in recent years. Let's delve into the psychology of political socialization! Do you believe that we might support gay marriage just because we have become accustomed to the idea? What about his postulate that an individual's morals are not set in stone and instead can change rapidly?

You can hear it from the man himself in Haidt's own quick, two-minute summary of his beliefs in the video below:

Stilettos vs. Foot-binding

These days you see heels everywhere, specifically stilettos. Not only are they a trend in today's fashion, but they also symbolized women leaving inferior jobs and gaining status and power. For women to be wearing these heels on a day to day basis, they made it look a lot easier than it actually is. It takes balance and confidence to be able to rock a pair of heels, let alone stilettos. Even through the pain, women manage to wear these heels, not only for power but sex appeal, status, and luxury. In the past it was known that women bound their feet in order to transform their bones to show they were of higher class than the other women.

In your opinion, is there a difference between the foot-binding and the trend in stiletto heels?

Decline In Stocks: Greece

The future for European stocks doesn't look so promising. Fear that Greece will continue to decline has the world economy on edge. It was stated that the "Stoxx Europe 600 Index may extend it's lowest level this year". Global markets are being weighed down because of this economic crisis. Is this a big deal? What is the most concerning part of the whole situation?

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Tick Tick Tick

        In honor of mother's day, I would like to share about an article in today's paper. The article was about the increasing practice for women to freeze their eggs in order to have children later on in life. One doctor from Reproductive Biology Associates of Atlanta said that about three quarters of these women are encouraged by their parents who often pay for part of the bill which ranges from 8 to 18 thousand dollars. The procedure is not always a sure thing either. It gives many women the relief of still having the possibility to birth children, without the pressure of finding a husband and baby-daddy RIGHT NOW. This may be a false sense of security, but some believe it is worth the risk. Many daughters see parental participation in this process as a gift that their parents can give them. An investment in the future so to speak. Such a large investment may seem too big a gamble when you're putting up the whole cost, but split down the middle, the risk feels less...risky. Many of the women, however, feel pressured by their parents. Fertility preservation for your daughter has to be an awkward conversation to bring up in every day situations. There is a"very fine line between concern and pressure" says Rachel Lehmman-Haupt, author of “In Her Own Sweet Time: Unexpected Adventures in Finding Love, Commitment and Motherhood”. Should parents suggest this kind of thing at all?I personally think it is quite odd for women to require such assistance from their parents in matters such as these, or recieve any pressure to freeze her eggs. The fear that one's biological clock is ticking is her own worry, not the business of her parent's. Is the need for grandchildren really as strong as the desire to raise one's own children? I don't think so. Any thoughts? This practice is also used for women who plan to be treated for cancer. I think this is a much more concrete reason to participate in the procedure than because a woman fears infertility due to her age.  Perhaps I am being closed-minded. Maybe? 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Eduardo Saverin Gives Up US citizenship to Avoid Taxes


If you've seen the movie, "The Social Network," then you know the co-founder of Facebook, Eduardo Saverin. He is the man that decided to sue the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for an enclosed amount of money that is still unreleased.
 Recently  Facebook was estimated to be valued at $96 billion which Saverin responded to by renouncing his US citizenship to apparently avoid his taxes. Originally from Singapore, Saverin decided this would be the place he would move to. According to the article found on yahoo, "Singapore doesn’t have a capital gains tax. It does tax income earned in that nation, as well as 'certain foreign- sourced income,' according to a government website on tax policies there."

Although Saverin is renouncing his citizenship, he still has to pay an exit tax. Saverin will stay have to pay  taxes on the capital gains from the stock holdings. He will have to pay taxes on all and even the shares that are not sold will be treated as if they are, there is no escaping the IRS.

Although Saverin will be paying a pretty penny in exit taxes, he will be saving a lot of money by renouncing his citizenship and his investments in foreign companies will only mean for money for the now 30 year old billionaire.

My question to you is, should US citizens be able to renounce their citizenship to avoid taxes? Why or why not?